by e rathke

Deep in the night as the fire burned bright and another of Dev’s stories came to an end, Mycha snorted. “Any of that true?”

Dev spat into the fire, ignoring Mycha, and turned to the new woman, Guo. “She’s always like this, confusing churlishness for confidence. Told old Barshnya that she fought for some famous army no one this side of the Spine’s ever even heard—”

Mycha snorted again. “So provincial for a singer.” She rolled her eyes towards Guo, “He’s been desperate for someone to listen to him for weeks. If he’s a bother, just tell me.” Standing, she flexed her bare arms and legs.

Guo laughed, took a pull from her bottle, then handed it to Mycha. “I love stories. True or not, they tell us much of who we are.”

Dev smiled. “Just so!”

Mycha snorted again, drank from the bottle. “If all you want are stories, there’s a man not far from here.” She squinted into the night as if she could make out the landscape. “He’s off that way in a town tucked in a holler between the mountains.” She squinted deeper, turned around. “Maybe that way. I’ll let you know in the morning. Met him last time I was in these parts.” Squinting up at the sky, towards the five moons still visible, like her memory lived there. “Probably three or five years now. He claimed to be from another world.” She snorted, then laughed. “He had a lot of stories! Wild ones you’re not likely to hear elsewhere.”

“Another world.” Guo breathed the words, frowning at the fire.

“What he said. Whether he’s mad or a liar or one of these seers that becomes a prophet picking up disciples, I couldn’t say. At the time, he seemed an eccentric tolerated by the town.” Mycha sipped from the bottle again, then smiled as she handed the bottle back to Guo. “Maybe he’s gone by now. Back to that other world.”

The singer yawned. “Why’s it every madman’s always ranting about other worlds?”

Guo raised an eyebrow, handed the bottle to him. “You’ve known others?”

Shrugging, he took the bottle and drained what was left of it.

“Just his way,” Mycha laughed. “Acts as if he’s heard every story already. Come on.” She reached across the fire and he took her hand, let himself be yanked off into the darkness, into her tent.

Guo watched them go, smiling, spinning a boneflute in her only hand.

Days later, Guo found the town tucked between the mountains, asked the wary people about a foreign man living among them. Reluctantly, they pointed her towards the steepled stone building overlooking the town. In exchange, she gave them news of the world beyond the mountains, and stories from distant shores.

The suns blared hot and bright as she made her way alongside the river through the town of stone homes, past markets, past temples to local gods. She spun the boneflute between her fingers. Her calves and thighs burned as she climbed the steep incline to the stone building nestled into the rising mountain. Far enough away to be separate, but always visible while in town and even long before Guo could see the town itself.

In the afternoon light, the suns falling away from one another towards opposing mountains cradling the town, Guo made it to the courtyard of the steepled stone building. Panting, she took in the surrounding gardens. The forest stretched from the back of the building up into the mountains. Turning back to the town below her, she saw how high she had climbed that day.

The entire countryside opened before her. Catching her breath, she thought she saw Barshnya’s caravan off in the distance as it wandered alongside the river carved through the hills and forests. The long road tethering them to civilization, to vast markets and ports connecting distant peoples.

She was approaching the stone building when she heard a man speak.

“The important thing is to always do your best. No one can ask for more than that.” His voice was high and nasally, strangely accented.

Another voice, younger, higher. “Keeps falling apart.”

She crept around until she saw him. He wore a black robe so faded it was grey. Thin grey hair wisped away from his scalp in the breeze and his skin was paler than she’d ever seen. He reached towards a young boy with hands and arms so thin Guo smelled death on him. The young boy handed the pale old man a wooden object. The old man nodded. “Ah, see here.” He dropped to a knee close to the boy, their heads pressed together as they studied the wooden object. “The grooves don’t make a perfect fit and so they make no fit at all. This way’s quite difficult.”

“S’how Master Lura works wood.”

“Ah, well, she’s a master, yes?” The older man raised his face to the boy’s. “Her way’s best but only if done perfectly. She’s spent her whole life to perfect her craft. Look at my own woodwork.” He gestured to the stone building. “This’ll need to be rebuilt, probably, before you’re a man. It’s why I use nails to fasten wood together. It’s ugly and imperfect, but it’s much easier.” He clapped the boy gently on the shoulder. Standing, he grunted and turned to see Guo watching him.

Startled, he sucked in his breath, pressing his hand to his chest. Then, he laughed. “You startled me.” His eyes flicked up and down, studying her. For a moment, his expression became serious.

Guo cocked her head to the side. “You’re a teacher.”

He shrugged and smiled as he looked down, then back at her. “Not a very good one, it seems, but I do try.”

“Boy, what does he teach you?”

The boy turned to the older man, who opened his callused palm and motioned towards Guo, as if gesturing the boy’s freedom. The boy stood tall, raising his chin. “He teaches of his dead god.”

“Not dead,” the man laughed, “though he did die.” Smile lines creased his face.

“A foreigner with a dead god.” Guo spoke quietly, as if to herself and wiped at her sweaty neck.

He raised his face to the sky, to the suns sliding behind opposite mountains. Bringing his gaze back down, he appeared to notice the woman approaching around the corner of the building at the same time Guo did. “Your mother’s here, Alar. Head on home for today. We’ll make a new cross tomorrow.”

“Can I bring my sisters?”

The woman came no closer but waved for Alar to come.

“Only if they want to join us,” the man said. “We’ll need their strength at the Meeting, but Meeting’s not until the end of the week. Five days. I’ve heard a bit of a crowd’ll be there this time. Should be quite a spectacle. Even Master Lura’s building a cross for the occasion.”

“Mother said you’re going to conjure your dead god.”

The man sighed and looked past the town to the countryside. “Be there and we’ll see.”

Alar laughed. Then he bowed to the old man, cast a glance to Guo, and hurried to his mother. Hand in hand, they walked away.

The old man deflated, the smile and laughter falling from his face, his voice. Then he stood tall, back straight and shoulders squared. Despite his thinness, he was well built. “I’ve expected you for some time.” He turned back to Guo. “Want to sit in the garden? The night should be pleasant.”

Guo nodded, gestured for him to lead the way. He took his time as they came out of the shadow of the trees, his stone building. Bees buzzed through his gardens filled with flowers, peppers, lettuces, and beans. As he walked, he cast his gaze all around him, as if soaking the place in one last time.

When they came to a bed of purple flowers grown tall, swaying in the breeze, he sighed. “Thought we had an understanding.” His voice cold and brittle. When he turned to face her, tears welled in his eyes. “I kept to myself and did nothing to spread the word of my god.”

Guo cocked her head. “Who do you think I am?”

He swallowed, his throat bobbing. “This isn’t a game to me.”

“I fear we’re speaking past one another.” Guo scratched at the side of her nose. “No one sent me here.”

“Tell the priestess, then, that I’ve done no harm here. I’ve not even spoken against Yawabara, though I still carry his scars. They burn every day.” His voice scraped with passion, with pain, as his fists clenched. As he spoke, his face pinked and then reddened. “The curse will take me before long and she can leave my corpse to the wraiths to be forgotten by any and everyone here. I only ask, again, that she leave my kirkh standing for as long as it will or as long as the people here choose to keep it. If they choose to take my stones and salt my gardens after the curse takes me, so be it. But I ask, again, finally, for her to leave it to them.” He wiped at the tears in his eyes. “I have kept my word.” His voice rose sharp with indignation. “Please, ask your Mother to leave me alone.”

Guo unslung her pack from her shoulders and squatted to dig through it. “Not one of the priestesses here. I’ve not even heard of Yawabara. That the god of these mountains?”


She pulled out a bottle of clear liquid with her only hand. Standing, she held it out to him. “My name is Guo. I’m as foreign to this place as you. Have a drink with me and perhaps we can have a chat.”

The old man took the bottle in his pale hands and held it. “What is this?”

She smiled. “Got it from upcountry, past the mountains. They call it mashke. It’s terrible, but it’ll warm your chest. Maybe calm your fears a bit.”

He stared at the bottle, scowling. Quietly, he said, “I don’t drink.”

“I do.” She held out her hand to him. He handed the bottle back and she took a sip. It burned down her throat, sharp but with a touch of sweetness. “Now, who are you that the priestesses want you gone?”

“Forgive me, Guo. I need a moment to adjust. I’ve feared them coming for me every day for years now.” He smiled wanly down at his open hands. “Guess I didn’t realize how terrified I truly was until you showed up.” He raised his eyes to her. “I didn’t think I was afraid to die.”

“Not so strange, that.”

“No,” he laughed, “I suppose not. I’m Tomas.”

“You’re a holy man.”

Laughter bubbled up and through him. He threw his head back and barked his laughter into the purpling sky. Guo sipped from the mashke and winced, then corked it again. She waited for him to recover. As she waited, she turned towards the mountains rising from his kirkh. The western mountain that the kirkh stood on rose sharply to pierce the clear sky above while the eastern rolled gradually up into the endless skies.

Tomas spoke through the ends of his laughter. “Forgive me. I just—I thought a moment ago that you were here to kill me or to collect me to be killed somewhere else. Once, I’d have been referred to as a holy man. Here, they tolerate me as an amusing and clumsy curiosity.”

“Heard it said that you came from another world.”

The smile died on his face. It aged him. His face seemed longer without the joy or passion. “I was under a certain kind of stress when first I came here.”

Guo raised the bottle towards him again.

Sighing, he took it once more, uncorked it. Smelling the bottle, he recoiled, wincing. “Poison.”

Guo laughed. “It’s foul, but it makes talking easier.”

He nodded. “Suppose it does.” He corked it again but didn’t hand it back. “Help me make a fire.”

They gathered wood stacked alongside the kirkh. When Tomas noticed that Guo only had the one hand, he told her that he’d take care of it. And he did. Gathering the wood, some kindling and dry leaves from the forest, he set about lighting it with a flint and steel after a handful of attempts.

Smiling, he said, “You’ve no idea how long it took me to learn to do that.”

“No one builds fires where you’re from?”

He leaned back on his heels. “No. Some do, but we have an easier way. I’d tell you how it works, but I never bothered to even learn. It never seemed important.” He raised his hands, palms up before him. “I was a different man when first I came here. This life has humbled me a great deal. Yes, people once called me a holy man. I thought I was.” He shrugged, shaking his head, letting his hands fall. “They were wrong. I was wrong. There was nothing holy about my life.”

Guo nodded. “That’s life. We believe we see until forced to face our blindness.”

“Feel that in my bones.” Tomas picked up the bottle again and held it as he sat opposite Guo, the fire eating wood between them. “Here, among these people who think of me as a strange uncle and in the shadow of a living god’s mountain, I believe I’ve discovered my god for the first time. It took a curse consuming me to find holiness.”


He nodded, staring into the fire. “I came from the mountains.” He waved behind him. “I was… I don’t recall how I arrived there. In my memory, I was carrying on with my life. Then next moment, I was on the mountain, snow swirling around me. Freezing and confused, I ran through the darkness. Shrieking for my god, I found another.” He looked across the fire to Guo, a slight smile. “Yawabara didn’t take to me, I fear. Made a bad impression.”

“Show me.”

He opened the bottle again. Smelled it again. Winced again, coughing. Shaking his head, he said, “People drink this?”

Guo shrugged. “I came here to meet you. Do you not wonder why?”

“You heard I was insane. You’re not the first to come to meet me. Most are disappointed. For all the raving of my early days here, I’ve adjusted a bit. My life is simple and small.”

“Does a single, yellow sun mean anything to you?”

Tomas sucked in a breath. The bottle slipped from his limp hands, falling only a few inches to the ground, its neck still between his fingers.

“Ah.” Guo smiled. “So it’s true. You are from another world.”

Tomas stared at Guo, then at the fire, his breath coming rapidly. Blinking repeatedly, his eyes wide, he ran his hands over his face, then began weeping. Guo came to his side, set the bottle of mashke out of reach, where it wouldn’t be tipped over and spilled. Putting an arm around his shoulders, she pulled him into an embrace. He threw his hands around her, clung to her tightly, and wept into her shoulder.

“You found me,” his whispered voice came between sobs. “You found me.”

Guo let him cry as the brightness fell from the sky, the mountains rising above the suns. In the burgeoning darkness, fireflies fluttered through the air. Drifting constellations of flashing lights over the gardens all around Guo and Tomas.

He leaned back from her and stared into her face. “Do you know how to get home?” Desperation and hope soaked his words.

“I have never been to your world.” Guo spoke gently as Tomas’ expression collapsed, hope dissolving before her eyes. “I have known others, though. People from other worlds who have found themselves trapped here.”

His lip trembling, “Did any of them find their way home?”

Guo kept her eyes on his. “No.”

His eyes closed tight, as if he had been struck, wincing in pain. “Think I’ll need that mashke after all.”

Guo leaned over to grab the bottle and brought it back to him. He studied the bottle, then sighed heavily. Putting the bottle to his lips, he held it high, drinking three swallows before lowering it.

“Feel better?”

Tomas snorted. “This has got to be the nastiest drink ever made.”

“You’d be surprised what people will drink.”

He smiled, despite himself. Then took another shallow sip. Staring down at the bottle in his hands, he sighed. “Do any of them know why?”


He shook his head, handed Guo the bottle. “I have something I’m intending to try soon.”

Guo took a sip, winced, didn’t ask.

Tomas wiped his face dry. “It’s funny how a place becomes home. When I first arrived at this town, I thought everything was fake. Or, not fake, but like this was all a dream. It was the only thing that made sense to me. I appeared here in a wintry storm and was attacked by a monster. No one spoke any intelligible language. And then the two suns, the seven moons.” He shrugged. “But now,” he looked around, taking in his gardens, his kirkh, the fireflies, the mountains, and the town, the valley stretching into the lowcountry.

“It’s a beautiful place.”


“But it’s not home.”

He snorted. “Not home.”

“I am old,” Guo said. “Far older than you can imagine. My own home was taken from me long ago. So long ago that none but me remember the name.” She turned to him, stared at his profile. Rakish with features that seemed too large for his face, the shadows and the firelight contouring his face in unflattering ways. “I have wandered this world. I have found many homes. Lost many of them, through war or my own changing heart. Home is nowhere, but it can be anywhere.”

“We have sayings like that where I’m from too. Home is where the heart is.”

“That’s good.”

He smiled, turned to her. “Many find it trite.”


“Worse than that. We’ve lost our naivety and our innocence so much that we treat gentle words like lies. What made you believe them?”


Tomas gestured towards the air, the darkness. “Those you’ve met from other worlds.”

Guo leaned back, took another sip from the bottle. She angled it towards Tomas but he only put the cork in. She smiled at that. “Reality as we perceive it is one thing. Whole and solid and sturdy. But it is really a thousand thousand threads intersecting with a thousand thousand threads. There are those who can perceive the tears or frays in reality. They exploit them. Some call these gods or monsters or demons. Perhaps you’ve seen the Angels with their many eyes and wings and inhuman statures?”


She raised an eyebrow at him. “You have these too?”

“No,” he gasped. “Or, yes. Few have ever seen them.” He snorted a laugh. “Some who see them are called mad. I’ve found new levels of irony here, under these strange suns.”

Guo nodded. “There is a reality on the otherside of this one. Just through the parting of those threads.” She waved her handless wrist in the air. “A different world is here, within reach, if only we find the way through.” She pulled her wrist back, staring at the missing hand. “I have always thought of it as a space between. There, I once watched a man tie a rope around his neck, tying the other end from a tree. Every day for nearly a hundred days, I watched him try to hang himself. Every time, something failed. Whether his nerve or the rope or the tree.

“He was lost. Perhaps he was from your world or some other world. Perhaps even from mine. I don’t know. I didn’t speak to him. Only watched him. One day, he didn’t return. Perhaps he found his way back home or became trapped in some other, different reality.”

Brow knit, Tomas stared at her. “You didn’t help him?”

“I didn’t come here to help you either, Tomas.”

“Why did you come?”

“To speak to you.”

He leaned back, his expression stern. “You never helped any of them.”

“People don’t change just because you want them to. We all must discover the will to live alone.”

He turned from her to the fire. Her words hung between them. Far away, laughter boomed from the town, then music. Guo swayed to the melody, gave herself to the clapping beat that accompanied the music. She took out her boneflute and played quietly. When a voice rose above the music, Guo stopped playing and listened.

“She’s a beautiful singer.” Guo thumbed her boneflute. “I love music but have never gained the talent of someone like that. Music just flows through them effortlessly.”

Tomas said, “You’re alone.”

Guo nodded. “I am.”

“You’ll always be alone. You’ve been hurt too deeply.”

She held out the boneflute to him. “This was given to me by a god. Have you heard that any gift from a god is a curse?”

He shook his head.

“Sometimes I wonder. I have known many gods. Loved some of them. Loved by some of them. You do not know what it is to be seen and loved by a god.” Smiling sadly, she closed her eyes. “It’s as if reality becomes thicker and presses tightly around you. Like the air itself embraces you. The attention of a god drives many mad. But it is the absence of that attention once given that kills.” She turned to Tomas. “I have loved gods and been loved by them. Then forgotten, even as I stand there, naked before them.”

“I have loved a god all my life but the only one I’ve ever met in the flesh is Yawabara.” He stood and pulled up his robe, then pulled it off. A deep black groove ran from his left hip to his right shoulder. Thick at his hip and narrow at his shoulder, the skin still parted as if never healed. A purplish red smeared across his chest and down his left leg. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. But I feel it changing me. Consuming me.”

Guo nodded. “For all the violence, Yawabara likely meant you no harm. It may have seen your distress and believed it was helping.”

Tomas snorted.

“The gods are like children. They experience reality differently than we do. They do not understand us. They hardly understand themselves.”

“Sounds human enough,” he snorted. “I don’t blame Yawabara. I don’t even hold a grudge. It may have meant it as a gift, but I feel the curse of it transforming me. In quiet moments, I feel swept up by violence. I smash my fist into the stone walls or scream into my blanket.” He pulled his robe back on and sat. “I stopped eating meat. Something about eating flesh…”

“Did it help?”

He smiled, ran his hand through his thin hair. “It is not a real god. For all that this is a curse, I’ve found the gift in it, too. It wasn’t until I had been here a few years, the curse slowly swallowing me, that I came to understand my own god.” He gestured towards the kirkh, the garden. “Building this place—I found God, truly, for the first time in my labor. Humbled, alone, lost, I found God in a way I’d never experienced before. It turned me from an embarrassing spectacle into a member of this community. Separate and tolerated more than loved, but they accept me for what and who I am. Some of them even believe in me or find it amusing to make me believe so. Many of them come to speak to me about God. I share what I know. What I learned before and what I’ve learned here.” Tomas smiled at Guo. “God did not abandon me.”

Guo studied him. “Tell me of your god.”

And he told her of a man who was born from no father, who was betrayed, who died, who returned, and then left humanity.

“God will take me home.” He laughed. “That probably sounds delusional. You’ve shown me something tonight, though.”


He nodded, smiled, and set a hand on Guo’s shoulder. “Have a place to stay while you’re here?”

“I’ve my tent.”

Tomas smiled. “Come inside. I’ll make you up a bed.”

The days came and went. Children came to Tomas every day. Some of them only watched him tend his garden while others asked him questions about his god, about the strange language he spoke when he prayed, about his pale, pinkish skin. He spoke to them as equals, never condescending or ignoring a question. He spoke to them of choice, of morality. Some knelt inside his stone kirkh while he chanted in some strange language. Some of them even chanted along with him. Some only came to play games with him.

Guo and Tomas did not speak again of worlds or gods. Guo taught him a game played with stones, and Tomas taught her a game with tiny figures carved awkwardly from wood on a wooden board painted in squares.

On the fifth morning, Guo woke to Tomas and a handful of women erecting a wooden cross twice his height before the kirkh.

“That’s perfect,” Tomas said. “Lay it back down. Irapa, I’ve written the words here. I won’t be able to speak once this begins, but these words are important.”

Irapa, a tall man with wide shoulders and a thick stomach laughed. “I know, I know. We’ve practiced already, my friend.”

Tomas clapped him on the shoulder, smiling. He looked up at the sky, at the suns rising over the mountains. “All right, we need to take this cross back down to the gates.”

Alar, the young boy from before, said, “You’ll really be born again?”

Smiling, Tomas knelt before the boy. “Only God knows.”

The boy then threw himself into Tomas’ arms. Surprised, it took Tomas a moment to hug him back. Guo didn’t hear what the boy said, but she heard Tomas. “I will always be with you, Alar. God will always be with you.”

Guo only watched as they left the kirkh and wandered back through town. Three women carried the cross between them with Tomas following. Standing at the edge of his courtyard overlooking the town, the valley and country beyond, Guo sat, letting her legs hang down over the rocky precipice. She watched Tomas speak with everyone he passed. Sometimes only a few words, sometimes for entire conversations. A fruit vendor offered him something, but he refused, then laughed at some joke.

When he reached the edge of the town, he disrobed. Even from that distance, the scars Yawabara left in him stood out. Almost as if they glowed blackly. In the brightness of day, she saw how the smearing discoloration covered his torso, rising even up his neck and across his shoulders. The women handed him the cross. Setting its crossbeam against his shoulder, he nodded at them.

They began singing in a language Guo didn’t recognize. Only a dozen people accompanied Tomas, but all of them sang the strange words. Tomas, alone, dragged the large wooden cross through the town.

The town stilled to watch him. Some waved and others threw flower petals into the air before him. Some strange procession. A ritual Guo did not recognize or understand but knew came from far away. Near enough at hand to touch that other world, but impossibly distant. As Tomas dragged his cross and his friends sang his songs, Guo stared up at the mountains facing one another, cradling this town.

The gods lived there. At least one had brutalized Tomas. Cursed him. Slowly, he would transform. Guo had seen it before. Watched as a woman’s humanity flayed away day after day because a god loved her too deeply. She became only a demon. A monster.

The singing louder, closer, Guo watched Tomas breathe heavily, stumbling as he dragged his great wooden cross up the mountain. The discoloration left by Yawabara’s curse seemed almost liquid beneath his skin, flowing with his movements. He tripped and fell just beneath where she sat. The women rushed to help him back up, but he laughed. Laughed as if his bloody knees and hands were some great joke.

Waving them away, he shouldered the cross again.

He had reached the steepest part of his journey. He fell again, still laughing through his wheezing breaths. Then, nearly as soon as he had gotten back to his feet, he slipped on some loose stones and tumbled forward, the cross landing heavily on his back.

Guo sucked in a breath, wincing at his pain. No longer laughing as they helped him up, but he smiled. Through labored breaths, he said, “Rest… a moment…”

The women held the cross in place and kept singing. Guo looked towards the town. Dozens of people gathered to watch Tomas. Some worried and some enjoying the spectacle of it all, but they remained silent or sang along with those making the journey with Tomas.

Tomas got back to his feet, shouldered the cross, and trudged his way up the steep slope to his kirkh. He stumbled and fell again and then once more. Finally, he allowed two of the women to help him carry the cross up to the courtyard.

Sweating and breathing heavily, he let the cross fall, then collapsed upon it. Smiling but too tired to laugh, he stared up at the suns overhead. One red. One blue.

Guo came and crouched over him. “You all right?”

He giggled lightly through his heavy breaths. “Feel… amazing.” His chest heaved and the colors flowed beneath his skin. Tendrils snaked up his neck to stretch over his jaw, up to his hairline.

She snorted, stretched out her hand to help him up.

Shaking his head, he instead stretched his hands wide along the crossbeam. Taking several deep breaths with his eyes closed, he steadied his breathing. Opening his eyes, he turned to his friends, his followers, and nodded.

Master Lura approached with a hammer and nails as long as her forearm.

“Sing,” Tomas said. “Sing and I won’t cry out. Irapa, begin.”

Irapa began speaking but Guo didn’t know the language.

Guo frowned at Master Lura as she approached. “What are you doing?”

“Only what he asks,” Master Lura said. Crouching down, she pressed one of the nails against his right wrist. She met his eyes and Tomas nodded. Raising the hammer, she pounded it through while the others continued singing in that strange language. A haunting, melancholy dirge. The purplish red covering Tomas recoiled at the hammer blow, shrinking in towards the slashing wound on his chest.

“Stop!” Guo leapt over Tomas’ body and pushed against Master Lura. But Master Lura was large and strong. Rather than fall or lose her balance, she tossed Guo to the ground, went back to the nail.

“Guo,” Tomas gasped, “please… do not… interfere. I’m… going home.”

Guo stared at him in horror, then turned to his friends all determined to see this through.

Tomas didn’t scream out. His jaw set and eyes clenched closed, he breathed rapidly through the hammer blows, then slowly between them. The scar and the infection reacted to his pain, as if protecting itself. Master Lura nailed both hands to the crossbeam, then moved down to his feet. She nailed a piece of wood beneath his feet.

Guo watched the women push the cross upright while Irapa kept speaking words in that same strange language as the singing. It was then that the singing stopped. Only Irapa’s words and Tomas’ heavy breathing filled the air as they moved the cross towards a hole dug into the ground near the edge of his courtyard. Tomas stood on the platform Master Lura nailed for his feet and looked out over the town, the valley, the lowcountry stretching out before him for miles.

His labored breathing became the only sound as Irapa finished speaking, as Guo watched, as those gathered watched, as the entire town stared up at him in a wash of horror, confusion, and amusement. After a time, those gathered below drifted away, carried on with their day. Except for one, who made her way up to them.

All those gathered around Tomas remained silent, watching him. The black scar stretching from hip to shoulder grew blacker, swallowing light. This woman from below made her way through the small crowd and stood before Tomas. Guo recognized her as Alar’s mother.

Tomas looked down at her. “Yes, Vandi?”

“Does it not hurt?”

He smiled. “Yes. It hurts.”

“Will they not let you down?”

“They would, if I asked.”

She looked at those gathered, her gaze resting on Guo. “You’re his friend?”

“No,” Guo said.

The woman looked thoughtful. She turned back to Tomas. “Why are you doing this?”

Tomas smiled, shaking his head. “For God.”

She frowned, turned back to Guo, to the rest gathered. Biting her lip, she turned back to Tomas. “Your god wants this?”

He laughed through his labored breathing, through his pain. “I don’t know. I have never known what God wants. I only ask for God’s help.”

Vandi stared at him a long time but left with her children before he lost consciousness, before the scar began to ooze black blood.

e rathke writes about books and games at He is the author of the novellas Glossolalia and Standing on the Shoulders of Walking Giants. A finalist for the 2022 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award, his short fiction appears in Luminescent Machinations, Shoreline of Infinity, and elsewhere.

“There are many SF stories about Catholic priests in space, but none, as far as I’m aware, of Catholic priests in a fantasy world. I thought I’d write one.”

“Heretic” by e rathke. Copyright © 2022 by e rathke.

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